Thursday, march 11
Balsamo della Mecca – new fragrance review from Via del Profumo
What is an Oriental? What is the true essence of this type of perfume, beyond the classifications and the beautiful interpretations given by several modern perfumes? Is it sandalwood, sweet vanilla, amber or a mix of oriental balms?
In the official classification of perfumes at the SFP, oriental and ambery are written with a slash showing the importance of the ambery note (and not just the natural grey amber note). This family is maybe the oldest and its ingredients are used since the ancient times (unlike the floral essences that appeared much later). During the past 100 years many variations have been played on the facets that define this family – from Ambre Antique (vanilla, sweet balms animalic notes) to Prada l’Eau Ambrée (a modern interpretation of the gray amber note) and the shades portrayed by the creations of Serge Lutens and Guerlain.
The Balsam of Mecca is one of the most ancient natural balms but also a composition (a blend) that appeared in the early days of perfumery art. Many of the true oriental balms used before the XIVth century are not very known today and their botanic source remains mysterious or not really known, as it happens with many plants from the middle east. Some of them were prized in the Ancient Rome and early Middle Ages but latter there is no more reference to their names as if the plants disappeared. Several opobalsamum like Judaea, Gilead, Mecca, baume du Caire, baume du Constantinople were often mistaken (taken one for the other depending on the supplier but I will not enter now in the details of each balsam, their botanic origin and scent).
A description of The Balsam of Mecca is given in 1591 by the Italian physician Prosperi Alpini in De Balsamo Dialogus (In quo verissima Balsami plantae, Opobalsami, Carpobalsami, et Xylobalsami cognitio). It was often identified with Amyris opobalsamum and later with Balsamea Meccanensis. The name was given because the plant was growing spontaneously near Mecca and Medina before the XVIth century. Several extracts were prepared from this balm. The most precious was obtained by the incision, it was not available in Europe and was reserved for religious purposes and to the richest men in the area. The next extract was prepared from branches and leaves with hot water (like cistus) and it was used as a perfume by the Turcs or sent in Europe as a precious gift. What was left, a type of resin, was imported in Europe as a Baume de la Mecque and used in pharmacy (and later in cosmetics).
Baume de la Mecque, much praised in The Ottoman Empire was also highly appreciated in Europe in the XVIIth century (though it was quite rare to see it under its purest form and not falsified, mixed with other balms). Even as a composition, it was an authentic image of the Orient and not the “oriental vision” as it will be later when perfumers will imagine the oriental scents.
Today, there is one beautiful perfume that can tell again this story of fascination with the precious and mysterious ingredients from Middle East. La Via del Profumo Balsamo della Mecca is the perfect answer for my first question – What is an Oriental?. Inside this beautiful 100% natural perfume we go back in time where all has started. Rare balms and precious flowers with a hint of spices are here to tell a mythical story. It is not a surprise that this perfume is made in Italy, the country where the oriental fascination of the West started long before the Orientalist paintings made their way in the Louvre Museum. Also, the academic research in Italy (history of fragrances and plants, articles and books available only in Italian) is more advanced than in France where everything became marketing.
Like the original balm described in late Renaissance texts, Balsamo della Mecca has a golden color while the scent has the texture of a honey and was inspired by a trip perfumer Dominique Dubrana took to Mecca (the story is on his website).
Opulent, with a strong overture and smoky incense, the perfume evokes the precious resins (and frankincense) melting slowly in the sun or the soft smoke that lingers in temples.
Balsamo della Mecca is an invisible soul inhabiting a magic space. The dry tobacco note gives an animalic shade, musky and deep like the natural product, but also rounds the slightly spicy peppery note. It is rich, ambery and labdanum while the floral accord suggests the sweetness of honey (as seen in broom absolute and some roses). The perfume has a very delicate trail, an extremely sensual appealing on the skin and it has a beautiful tenacity.
Unlike many orientals where the incense – labdanum note can be overpowering and the religious reference easy to detect, in Balsamo della Mecca the use of the flowers acts as the Veil – revealing but keeping untouched the “secrets”.
The labdanum note is the “axis mundi” in this fragrance while the use of floral absolutes blended like a delicious honey tempers the aromatic & ambery sharpness.
On the skin the perfume develops a beautiful animalic musk deer note refined as a precious fur hiding precious dates from secret desert oases. Unlike the Serge Lutens creations, this one is not baroque (the play on shades for a monumental effect of the material) but archetypal. We find inside the roots of all orientals and not the ornament.